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Living on the wrong side of the technology tracks

Digitally disenfranchised

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Computers, Freedom and Privacy Simon Davies, executive director of Privacy International, waved his hands in a general blessing before announcing global Big Brother awards for Choicepoint (most invasive company), Stewart Baker (worst public official), the UK (most heinous government), the International Civil Aeronautics Organisation (most appalling project), and the "Common Good" (lifetime menace).

Presenting as the Pope, Davies was attended by an entourage including Cardinal (and security expert) Peter G Neumann.

Baker, formerly general counsel to the NSA, Davies explained, was behind the worst US policies. At CFP he is best known for telling the 1994 conference that key escrow (in strong cryptography) was only opposed by those who couldn't go to Woodstock because they had to stay home to do their maths homework.

Today was a day of thinking about the people on the wrong end of the digital divide. Russell Roundpoint, the chief administrative officer for the Mohawk Council of Akwasasne, explained what it's like to live in a supposedly autonomous nation that is trisected by boundaries made by nations and states far younger than his.

The community is partly in Quebec, partly in Ontario – and to get from one to the other one must drive through a corner of New York state in the US. To get from home to work and back again each day, Roundpoint spends an unpredictable number of hours in a queue to answer the same questions about who he is and where he is going.

Or take Mara Keisling, director of the National Centre for Transgender Equity, who gets calls all the time from transgendered folk whose gender status puts their health, employment, ability to travel, and even lives at risk.

"You can be murdered easily in an emergency room without anybody knowing," she said, after detailing the story of a transgendered nurse who was taught in school how to treat men and women – but told "just let those freaks die" about the transgendered.

We had more statistics later: high-speed connections skew to urban users, creating a digital divide between rural and urban. Visual disabilities and illiteracy disenfranchise many more from the net – and the divide is increasing. People must have a say in the law if they are to be required to obey it – but today's laws are written in programming code.

Take, for example, digital rights management. A project at the University of Ottawa decided to test DRM products for their compliance with the Canadian privacy laws. And found widespread violations – users are never told who the third parties are to whom data is sent, what data is being collected, and cannot opt out. The most startling finding: the ebook reader that tracked almost every detail. ("While you're reading The Da Vinci Code, The Da Vinci Code is reading you," someone quipped.)

Over dinner, the discussion veered toward science fiction. What if machines come to own our human identities. Then what? They'll never be able to exercise human judgement, someone else argued. With humans increasingly being cut out of the decision loop, however, that may not matter. ®

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